For those familiar with their respective practices, the pairing of Mihkel Ilus and Paul Kuimet for a duo show at one of Estonia’s most established contemporary art venues was not an obvious choice, and it was something of a curatorial gambit. Both artists are male, Estonian, Tallinn-based, and roughly the same age, yet the humorous and (at times) messy nature of Ilus’s work starkly contrasts with the meticulous quality and understated elegance of Kuimet’s own, despite their shared obsession with the material and conceptual approach. The show walked the tightrope between their different artistic sensibilities, expressed in different media, and attempted to put them into dialogue—with mixed results.
According to Siim Preiman, who curated the show, the exhibition lies “at the intersection of the expanded fields of painting and photography.” Whereas Kuimet’s practice is rooted in photography but extends into film and installation, Ilus comes to sculpture and performance from a background in painting. The two artists could be said to work in a medium-specific way, while at the same time defying its conventions—namely, that of the two-dimensionality of painting and the flatness of the photographic image. In Ilus’s case, the medium is literally picked apart so that nothing remains of painting other than its material supports: the easel, the stretcher, the canvas, and oil paint. Their two practices overlap in terms of artistic media in the use of large-scale installations, which the artists see as one way of making the leap into three-dimensionality, but this is also where they tread on each others’ toes.
The main exhibition hall, which housed their largest installations in the same room, is a case in point. Kuimet’s “Untitled (Main Hall)” (2020) availed itself of the building’s grid-like skylights to light up, from the outside, four photographic transparencies featuring close-ups of tropical plants, mounted onto facing walls of a black box that visitors entered through a black curtain. The natural muted light that seeps into the gallery became an artistic material, listed among the different mediums. The proposition of a black box within a light box (that of the white room with its skylights) would have been more radical still had the room been lit with nothing but daylight. Sadly, this was at odds with the resolutely theatrical approach adopted by Ilus, whose own installation in the same space, titled “The City of Gradov” (2020) after a short story by the Russian writer Andrei Platonov, called for spotlights to create the dramatic shadows cast onto the surrounding walls by the wooden beams of a structure resembling a collapsed Ferris wheel.
The broken big wheel resonates on a local level because last year a shopping mall crowned with a gaudily lit-up Ferris wheel was built in Tallinn using public funds, a controversial project that proved to be a failure, recalling the fate of a disused amusement park erected on the seafront shortly after Estonia regained independence in the early 1990s which ended up being torn down. Its own Ferris wheel was the city’s answer to the one that the denizens of Tallinn could see blinking away on the other side of the Gulf of Finland in Helsinki, which embodied their aspirations for a brighter future at the tail end of the Soviet era. Whereas the original Ferris wheel was built for the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, a wooden “pleasure wheel” designed as a fair attraction by the Frenchman Antonio Manguino in the mid-nineteenth century is roughly contemporary with another feat of engineering: Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace. Intended to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, this temporary structure had a far more powerful and lasting hold on the imagination of contemporaries and future generations of architects.
The transept of Paxton’s revolutionary modular structure, drawing on the architectural idiom of greenhouses and covered shopping arcades of the kind explored by Walter Benjamin in The Arcades Project, informs Kuimet’s series of twelve photographic collages, “Crystal Grid” (2020), which mostly portray palm leaves photographed in botanical gardens around the world. Each is laser cut, following the grid of the Crystal Palace’s transept that Kuimet had traced on his computer, and then glued by hand onto aluminum panels and covered with an extra layer of glossy epoxy resin to lend the photographs added pictorial depth. A similar mix of handmade and machine-assisted processes characterizes Ilus’s output. The artist grew the flax used in the exhibition and would like to make his own pigment and glue, while “delegating” many of the tasks to the machines that he perceives to be active “collaborators.”
A pneumatic press is responsible for the broken-down and splintered aspect of Ilus’s “Don’t climb!” (2020), an outsized easel with distinctly anthropomorphic features. It seems to be doing a backward flip over the staircase that visitors have to walk up to access the exhibition space. Yet neither this work, nor the Duchampian “Hedgehog” (2018) made from wooden painting frames and installed on one side of a doorway, goes far enough in obstructing the visitors’ passage in a way that would make it truly performative. Elsewhere, the human-sized easels and the 70 kilograms of oil paint are spilling out of the cement mixer in the midst of the “Consequences of Love” (2020) installation, commensurate with the artist’s own weight. This work has its counterpart in the auto-fiction of an unnamed artist, who is browsing through materials that deal with transparency and “working on some collages,” introducing and bringing to a close Kuimet’s essay film “Material Aspects” (2020).
This is the first time that Kuimet has worked with sound in a filmic installation and produced a research-based narrative text—read aloud in a voiceover by an American male actor—to accompany the composite images that fade in and out of view during the nine-minute loop. The film was screened using a 16mm Eiki projector, on view in an adjoining room, where a framed optical C-print intriguingly titled “Pushpin” (2020) was also mounted on the wall, neatly aligned with the hole in the makeshift wooden partition through which the film was being projected. Made of plexiglass and steel, standing for the building materials of the Crystal Palace, the pin in the photographic still from the film seemed just the sort of metonymic, prickly detail that Roland Barthes had in mind when discussing the punctum in his Camera Lucida.